Hiroshima By John Hersey – Non-fiction Work Teaches Fiction Writers a Lesson

Synopsis: On August 6, 1945, Hiroshima was destroyed by the first atom bomb ever dropped on a city. This book, John Hersey’s journalistic masterpiece, tells what happened on that day. Told through the memories of survivors, this timeless, powerful and compassionate document has become a classic “that stirs the conscience of humanity” (The New York Times).

For The Writer: Here is a book which has and will remain on our shelves, blazoned on our consciences more like it, for as long as books are archived. Yes, the work is non-fiction, but Hiroshima holds forth lessons for the writer of fiction.

Its first quality lies in the work’s simplicity:

AT exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk. [p.3]

There are seven prepositional phrases, an adverb of time and a modifier describing Miss Toshiko in this opening sentence. This is a sentence, and a book, loaded with information. The sentence is in the past perfect tense sharing a past continuous action. This is a sentence that is straight forward, introducing a story of significant weight and a single detail cannot be missed nor lost in ambiguity. Like the introductory syntax, the sentences that follow plod on in the same, almost banal, rhythm, as if succinctly measuring off the seconds of a clock. It is in this simplicity and uncomplicated rhythm the story packs its punch. Hersey does not change tack the moment the bomb hits, nor after, in the first frantic minutes of the bombs aftermath and in the merciless firestorm. He does not change his sentence structure when he describes the inconceivable wounds and the appalling suffering. But like watching a car accident in slow motion, you can neither extract yourself nor avert the eyes of your imagination. This is the power of concise story telling; there are no clever words, nor turns of phrase to distract the reader, but note by simple note Hersey marches us to a masterful dirge.

There are middle grade and adult fiction authors who have achieved this simple hypnotic cadence that irrevocably casts its spell. Lowis Lowry (The Giver, Number the Stars), Kathi Appelt (The Underneath), Kate DiCamillo (The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane), Walter Wangerin Jr. (Book of the Dun Cow, Ragman and Other Stories), Johanna Skibsrud (The Sentimentalists) and Nino Ricci (Lives of the Saints) come to mind. These are authors who can write as if following a metronome, yet never bore. The reader is swept along as if riding a free-floating boat on the currents on a deep and old river, the observer taking in the dramatic scenes appearing beyond each meandering bend.

The story’s second quality lies in its simple technique. Hersey introduces six characters, who, with one exception, were living within 2 kilometres of explosion center. He narrates each character in the third person, jumping from character to character, chore to chore, lending his narration that feeling of first impact, unadulterated by interpretive hindsight, political censure, or bias. Hersey remains sympathetic without distorting the facts to protect his characters. Hersey tells – you feel it in the telling – the truth. The technique of alternating viewpoints is classic in fiction and Hersey gives an excellent demonstration of its power. But, one gets the feeling it is Hersey’s professional discipline, or determination to tell the truth of his characters which motivates the simplicity. Writers of fiction who take the time, who are insistent, who care enough not to distort and corrupt their characters, will achieve that kind of honesty.

Hiroshima’s third offering for fiction writers is in its careful prose. It is no wonder that Hersey acknowledges his editors. The vocabulary never understates nor is it lavish. Each word is the word that the context demands. The sentences are crafted to sustain the rhythm, never breaking rank on a wild run or lagging behind. If a writer could tell any tale in the masterful prose of John Hersey, that writer would shortly be published.



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